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The Assumption of Mary Meets the Progressive Emerging Church
SOLEMNITY OF THE ASSUMPTION – AUGUST 19, 2012
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Phoenix, Arizona
Sermon preached by David Justin Lynch, Esquire
Magnificat in place of the Gloria. Collect: 1979 BCP, Page 34. OT: Wisdom 7:21-30; Psalm: 9:9-14; NT: Acts 1:6-12; Gospel: John 19:25-27
+ In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier, AMEN.
The traditional doctrine of the Assumption for Western Christians has Mary, the Mother of Jesus, rising up into the sky instead of dying. ^ Eastern Christians have Her falling asleep – they call it Her Dormition. They leave what happened to Mary next as a mystery. Scripture doesn’t say anything about what finally happened to Mary, except to say Jesus told the beloved disciple John to take care of her. I look at that scene in today’s Gospel as Jesus giving Mary to us as His parting gift to the Church, as he said, “behold, your Mother.”
The Feast of the Assumption makes us look at two important questions: “Where is Heaven?” and “What is Heaven?”
Traditionally, Heaven was somewhere out there beyond the sky. That notion came from the idea of a universe with earth at its center. Remember, the Church started in a society without telescopes, and Copernicus, the guy who figured out the earth revolves around the sun, was still hundreds of years in the future. We now know that earth is a tiny planet in a huge universe, and we don’t know how far that universe extends into outer space. So where exactly isheaven? Where is that place that God took Mary? Perhaps we should focus on what Jesus said about what the relationship between heaven and earth oughtto be. Jesus believed Heaven was where God’s glory was. In the Lord’s prayer we find, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” From that, it’s very clear that God wants God’s kingdom not to be just out there, wherever, but here as well.
As to “What is heaven”, the traditional concept, is that of an ideal world where people go after they die. Traditionally, we earn our way into heaven by believing the right things, and behaving ourselves. I like to think of heaven, however, as simply God’s Kingdom, and I think God’s Kingdom surrounds us where we are now. That means that when God took Mary and raised Her in the glory of the Assumption, Mary became a part of that kingdom, and that kingdom includes us, here and now.
This morning, I’d like you to think about the Assumption in a new light, with the three B’s that Diana Butler Bass talks about in her new book, “Christianity After Religion. They are: Belonging, Behaving and Believing.
The first thing about Christianity, is that it’s about belonging to community. You can’t be a Christian all by yourself. As we heard in the lesson from Acts today, Mary was part of the Christian community. Mary was part of the Apostolic Ministry from day one. As Christians, we at our baptism began ourbelonging to a community with other Christians. As the old prayer book catechism put it, baptism made us “a member of Christ, a child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.” That for me is a very explicit communitarian statement, as it points what we become beyondourselves. But for us Christians, the idea of community encompasses not only those of us who are alive, but also those who’ve physically died. They’re still with us in a spiritualway, the same way Mary is now with us after the Assumption.
Christianity is also about behavior. The teachings of Jesus give us many examples of behaviorthat are associated with the Kingdom of Heaven. By that, I mean loving and forgiving those who wrong you, instead of seeking retribution – and I know, that’s very hard to do, particularly if you’re a lawyer as I am. ^ It means relating to people in a non-judgmental way, and yes, that’s also pretty hard to do as well, as we alltend to want to express opinions. It also means healing sick people, and feeding hungry people. It means parents gathering children into loving arms instead of punishing them. It is about telling the devil who tempts us with worldly power and pleasure to getlost. It means accepting back into your family kids who run away from home. It is about forgiving debts. It is about caringfor suffering people, instead of looking the other way and not wanting to “get involved.” It means giving people without a roof over their heads a place to stay. It means sitting down to dinner with outcasts, like tax collectors and prostitutes. And it means it’s more important to show compassion for people, than obey rules.
The behaviorsthat we’re taught to expect in the Kingdom of Heaven reflect the valuesthat characterize what kind of world God wants us to have. We hear manydiscussions about values these days, how different people have differentvalues, and the sources of our values. For Jesus, however, that source was Mary. Mary was not only the woman God chose to be the Mother of Jesus, but Mary was also was the person, who like every mother, had the intimacy of a mother-child relationship with her son, Jesus.
Jesus, who was fully human as well as fully divine, was no different than all of us. When we all grow up, we all to someextent absorb the values of our mothers, and behave in ways that our parents modeled for us. Our values reflect our beliefs, that is, the underlying principles that guide what we think and what we do. My mother taught me my Anglo-Catholic faith, and in fact, as a child, the very first prayer my mother taught me was the Hail Mary. Even now, I say the Hail Mary before I go to sleep at night. And, I don’t apologize when I say that I learned my philosophical and social values from my mother, and by that I mean, a concern for the poor, the oppressed, and the suffering, In those values, I feel the breath of the power of God. Those values guide my professional life as a California lawyer who represents people injured at work.
Mary’s relationship with Jesus made it possible for her to pass on to Jesus the wisdom of the Kingdom of Heaven, which he would teach us during his ministry. Mary’s values reflect Mary’s beliefs about God, and are eloquently stated in the Magnificat. Mary believes in a God who looks with favor on the lowly and calls them “blessed”. Mary believes in a God worthy of reverence for God’s mighty acts. Mary believes in a God who shows mercy on those under the shadow of God’s glory. Mary believes in a God who shows strength by putting down arrogant people. Mary believes in a God who knocks off powerful people, and lifts up the least among us. Mary believes in a God who sends away empty those who already have enough to eat, so truly hungry people can have basic nourishment. Mary believes in a God who will keep God’s promises to God’s people, and for Christians, the fulfillment of that promise, is Jesus.
All of these values are just as revolutionary today, here and now in America, as they were in ancient time – all we have to do is listen to a newscast, get on the Internet, or open a newspaper, to see that, even after nearly 2000 years of Christianity, we still don’t have a world where the values Mary taught Jesus are a universal reality. Just this week, I read about a proposed Federal budget from a man running for vice-president of this country, that disses the poor and elderly, and favors the powerful.
As we follow the journey of the Apostles in the Book of Acts, they tried to put into practice what they learned from Jesus, and not surprisingly, they encountered substantial resistance, both from the Jewish community of which they were part, and from the Roman empire that surrounded them. The rabble aroused by the temple leaders stoned St. Stephen to death for his beliefs about Jesus, and the Roman authorities incarcerated and prosecuted St. Paul the Apostle like a common criminal.
Resistance from both the political and religious establishment is still a problem for Christians who take Mary’s values seriously – one need only look at how Trinity Wall Streetresponded to the Occupy movement. Trinity insisted on the criminal prosecution of Bishop George Packard for trespassing. He was out there on Trinity’s vacant lot while he was part of protest demonstration on behalf of the 99%, who are suffering from high rates of unemployment, lack of health insurance, and foreclosed houses. The deafening silence from the Bishop of New York, and the Episcopal Church on the national level, shows us the samearrogant and oppressive behavior the Apostles suffered from the high priests of the Jerusalemtemple and the Roman authorities in the first century. Here we have a Christian institution, that passes resolutions at its General Convention that purportedly favor the poor over the rich, standing and watching, while the government of New York City, mercilessly prosecutes those engaged in clogging the chariot wheels of the oppressive 1%, who’ve been causing suffering for so many millions of people both in this country and abroad. That’s extremely hypocritical. The Episcopal ecclesiastical establishment should be ashamed of itself, for thinking first of its property rights, instead of social justice. In many ways, Roman Empire officials like Pilate, and High Priests like Caiaphas, are still in charge, and cooperating with one another.
These events in New York City ask us as Christians to consider the significance of the Assumption of Mary in a new light about what it means for God to take Mary into heaven and give Her a place of honor. Mary can, and should, be the basis of a new community founded on new behavioral expectations which arise from new beliefs and values about how we run our lives.
Unfortunately, our conservative evangelical sisters and brothers reject Mary’s values. Theythink that sanctity of contracts, property rights, and free-market capitalism, free of taxes and unfettered by regulations, are somehow part of an ideal “Christian” world. The practical result of that program, however, has been a society where wealthy people have become wealthier, and poor people poorer. That’s not the kind of world that Mary had in mind when Jesus was in her womb. Just read the Magnificat, phrase by phrase, and look around and see what’s going on in this country, and you’ll see what happens in a world without Mary.
So, not surprisingly, our conservative evangelical sisters and brothers rejectthe continued participation of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, in the ongoing Christian community. I can well understand why for them Mary becoming part of God’s kingdom, for time and all eternity, is very threatening. They operate from a blame-the-victim mentality, which is the very opposite of Mary’s values. That’s because the humane and beneficent wisdom of Mary, as set out in the Magnificat, directlyopposes focusing on the short term financial bottom line, and maintaining an arrogant human power structure, that continues to throw the least among us under the bus. These folks don’t think of belonging to a community, they think only of themselves as individuals. Their behavior is completely self-oriented. Their behavior focuses on dominating other people in a world where survival of the fittest replaces human compassion. While these folks may win the battle of a near term election, ultimately, they will lose the war, since against evil, wisdom always prevails, because God loves those who live with wisdom.
When in the Assumption God took Mary permanently into God’s Kingdom, God’s intent was to make the wisdom Mary taught Jesus part of our world. Mary’s wisdom calls for the human community to depart from evil, so that we might trulyunderstand what God wants for us. Mary’s wisdom wants us to be part of bringing God’s kingdom to the world. God’s intent was for Mary’s wisdom to pervade and penetrate our lives as well as that of Jesus. God’s bottom line is a world where the home of God is among us, where we will be God’s people, where death and its mourning and crying will be no more, in a place where all is perfectly consistent with Mary in her role as mother of mercy and of love, enthroned above.
The Assumption of Mary, that is, Mary becoming part of God’s kingdom forever, is part of an over-archingnarrative of the gospels, whose overall theme is God becoming king, to conquer the evil that flows from the opposite of Mary’s values. Only pure evilopposes the values of Mary proclaimed in the Magnificat. God’s intent on bringing Mary into God’s kingdom, was that Mary might be with us eternally, as part of our community, and that the wisdom Mary taught Jesus, will be part of the way we live, now and always. AMEN.